A few years ago, I attended an out-of-state wedding. I stayed with the bride-to-be and the groom-to-be. Not knowing the groom, I engaged in what I thought was an exploratory discussion into the groom-to-be’s life. I asked questions and let him talk about himself. Standard stuff you find in books on how to make friends.
I too have a problem. In real life (as well as online I suppose) I’ve built a reputation of being a stickler for accurate details — often to the point of pedantry I am told — there were quite a few things that he had mentioned that wasn’t quite right (as a lot of the things discussed had already been updated in the latest journals). A personality flaw of mine no doubt, was to point out that there was already updated knowledge about it.
I was later informed that the couple hadn’t been very happy with my visit. I was also told by my fiancee that I would constantly use the phrase “you mean you didn’t know?”. This phrase had become so ingrained to my speech that I hadn’t realized I had said it many times.
The problem with “you mean you didn’t know?” is that it sounds really condescending, even though I was genuinely surprised that someone didn’t know. Of course it could be meant to say that the other party is ill-informed, but it often was an expression of surprise, not one of condescension. Or so I thought anyway.
Communication has never been my strong suite. I will be first to admit that I have had on many occasions, missed obvious sarcasm, and many times, ignored basic facial or contextual cues. Don’t get me wrong though — I am capable of getting sarcasm, and more than capable of reading body language and understanding the situational context. I just don’t do it often. Perhaps the best way for me to explain it is like a circuit that has to be explicitly turned on – it’s just not always switched on. It’s also very tiring to have the circuit switched on constantly.
Speaking of explaining stuff, I still have yet gotten the hang of explaining things. I explain things very well, but my explanations are usually very long-winded or very curt and contextless. There never seems to be a middle ground to it.
When I explain things in a long winded fashion, I usually frame my explanations in a logical argument: start with the premises or axioms, then work towards the induction or deduction of the conclusion. I envision a story structure, having a beginning, climax and end.The beginning is the premise or axioms that lead to the conclusion, the climax is the routes to the conclusion — induction or deduction, and the conclusion is the conclusion itself. This structure works very well with academic journals. Not so much human communication. People tend to fall asleep when explaining premises.
And yet, if you ask my Pressyo cofounders, they will undoubtedly tell you that I am too short, and too curt. I am actually short and curt with my Pressyo cofounders. I use a lot of jargon in explaining things to them, leading most of them to often be clueless about what I am talking about. This habit may actually stem from when I was very young – I hated showing the workings to my mathematics problems: they were more often than not self-evident.
A Way With Words
What prompted this post and indeed a lot of introspection was an incident that happened last week. Earlier last week, we were discussing charisma of great leaders, and I had made a case that Hitler was a charming motherfucker. He knew how to rouse the country out of depression with his speech (obviously, thuggery was involved as well). This trait, I had argued is a mark of a charismatic leader. Almost all charismatic leaders had them. Consider the following:
A great time has just begun. America is awake. We have prepared the nation for a new age and we still have to empower the American people. I know, my fellow Americans, that times are difficult. You desired change that never came. Again and again an appeal had to be made so we could continue our struggle. What we have dreamed for years has become a reality. The most precious possession you have in this world is your own people. We will struggle and fight, and never tire, never lose courage, and never lose our faith. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America
Can you picture in your head that this could be stated by Barack Obama? Consider this then:
A great time has just begun. Germany is awake. We have amassed power for Germany, but we still have to empower the German people. I know, my brothers and sisters, that times are difficult. You desired change that never came. Again and again an appeal had to be made so we could continue our struggle. What we have dreamed for years has become a reality. The most precious possession you have in this world is your own people. We will struggle and fight, and never tire, never lose courage, and never lose our faith.
The paragraph on top was made out of snippets of Hitler’s actual speeches (the second quoted paragraph). I had merely transcribed some bits and merely Americanized the contexts.
I had used this to raise a point in the chatroom — that charismatic leaders have a way with words. Words that can rouse people. Then one of my cofounders put a bullet in this idea. He said “it’s the way it’s communicated that matters”.
I realised then, it was true. If you give the first speech above to Joe Sixpack, he’d probably just flub it out. But at the hands of a master communicator, you would have a hypnotic speech. In fact, after that, I did research a little bit more. Indeed, according to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA) Hitler was pretty damn good at giving speeches, and had concluded, “It was not, therefore, so much what he said that appealed to his audiences as how he said it.“.
Please do not think that I am writing this in praise of Hitler. I am not. This was a man who has lead a nation to do supremely evil things. To be able to do that, the level of persuasion must have been incredible.
Late last week, after discussing Hitler’s speeches, one of my cofounders told me that he would automatically mentally negate anything I suggest due to the way I put it. This is clearly not optimal in terms of running a startup. Upon further inquiry I discovered that it was my method of suggesting things that put him off. I was accordingly, ‘condescending and patronizing’.
He had also mentioned that the way I talk and explain things feels like I am attempting to whittle everything down to numbers on a spreadsheet, ignoring the human side of things while doing that.
It was in a moment of very frank and raw conversation. It was then I discovered yet another reason why my startup has yet to launch itself into super success — there is a barrier to communication in my startup. A communications breakdown has happened around the things I say, and the way I say it.
I spent the weekend away from the computer owing to a minor eye injury. That gave me a lot of free time to introspect upon the way I communicate. Which is what brought about memories of “You mean you didn’t know?”
When I was a much younger person, I was an arrogant little shit. By that I mean mentally, I felt superior to most people. And that most people are beneath me. I like to think that over the past 10 years or so, I have changed for the better. I now no longer feel that people are beneath me. But the speech patterns has been held over from the years gone past.
“You mean you didn’t know?” is a particular phrase that sticks out to me, because it was the first time my fiancee had pointed out this specific flaw to me. There were of course, many to come. “You mean you didn’t know?” does indeed sound very condescending. I have probably developed the habit of saying this from my arrogant little shit years, and never changed my speech patterns.
One may think that I am still an arrogant little shit. Perhaps that is true. But I have not felt superior to people in a long time. In fact I have increasingly felt the obverse. But still this speech pattern holds.
I asked my fiancee if I still say “you mean you didn’t know?” recently. And the answer was a resounding yes. In fact she revealed to me that I still communicate with a lot of derisive-sounding comments.
Asking around, it would appear that my friends do actually think that my penchant for explaining things in a long winded fashion is a form of patronization. However, I do not think it’s patronizing for me to explain the premises or axioms to an argument. I do it mainly for completeness sake — making so-called airtight arguments, not to deride someone else. I guess I feel vulnerable if I don’t make a complete explanation.
Upon much introspection, I agree that the heavy use of (mostly academic) jargon as shorthand for explaining things to people is often very intimidating. It leads people to think I may be making things up. So that’s one thing to change there. This one is pretty easy.
The much harder thing to change is that arrogant/condescending/patronizing speech patterns that I use. They say your thoughts translates to actions. I would humbly disagree in this case. This, in my opinion, is a case of breaking bad habits. I have worked out a deal with my cofounders to actively remind me when I go into the condescending explanation mode, or arrogant/dismissive statement mode. Upon which I will rephrase my statements to less condescending ones.
Another thing that needs to be changed is the story structure style of explaining things. One obvious thing to do is to ditch some of the explaination of the premises/axioms to the explanation/argument. However, I am so used to structuring my explanations thusly, I must admit I am having difficulties in culling premises to explain. Heck, this 2000 word blog post is pretty much an exercise in what I just mentioned.
I had mentioned earlier in the article that observing things like facial cues and sarcasm is like an explicit routine that I have to run, and that it tires me. I’m not sure what to do about that, but I have a feeling that there is a solution around this, and it might tire me out a lot more.
This should be an interesting one to watch.